How can you tell a “flat” story with no depth vs. a compelling story that captivates an audience? Count how many of your characters have problems.
In every great movie, every character has a problem. In every lousy movie, only the hero has a problem. My favorite lousy movie of the year is “Clash of the Titans” where only the hero seems to have a problem and everyone gravitates around that one person to help. Not only do these other characters seem dull, boring, and one-dimensional, but they serve no purpose other than to help or hinder the hero.
Now consider a movie like “Witness” where Harrison Ford has a serious problem. A bunch of cops he trusted are trying to kill him. Rachel, the Amish woman he befriends, also has a problem in showing her feelings for Harrison Ford against the wishes of her Amish community. Even the bad cops have a problem trying to find Harrison Ford. Everybody has a problem and that’s what makes the story so interesting because you want to find out how everyone’s problems are going to be solved.
In “The Incredibles,” the hero, Mr. Incredible, has a problem that he wants to be a super hero again. His wife, Elastic-Girl, wants to raise a normal family and her problem is keeping Mr. Incredible happy in a mundane life while also keeping her two super hero kids happy as well. Once again, the more characters who have problems, the more interesting the story.
Everyone’s problems need to be similar for maximum thematic impact. In “The Incredibles,” all the heroes have a problem dealing with their super powers in a normal world. If one character had a problem with super powers and another character had a problem with an ingrown toenail, the two problems are so different that it would distract from the main story.
The key is to create multiple problems for all your characters and make all problems similar in nature.
In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Jimmy Stewart and the miserly Mr. Potter are both frustrated people. Mr. Potter is frustrated because he wants to take over the town while Jimmy Stewart is frustrated because he wants to leave it. They both have similar problems, but their problems can only be solved if one wins and the other loses.
In your story, give all your characters major, similar problems. Then make sure your villain has a major problem too that directly conflicts with the hero’s problem so only one of them can win.
In “The Clash of the Titans,” the villain is Hades, but what’s his big problem? I guess you could say he wants to take over the world. How does this directly conflict with the hero’s problem? The hero wants to save the girl from getting eaten by this monster.
Now compare the difference between “Clash of the Titans” and “Die Hard.” In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis is trying to save his wife and the terrorist is threatening to kill her so he can get away with his robbery. That’s a clear, definite goal and problem for both of them, a far cry from the murky goals of “Clash of the Titans.”
Problems create conflict and conflict creates drama. Sidney Lumet once said that drama is where the characters drive the story but melodrama is where the story drives the characters. In other words, in bad movies, the characters behave simply to support the plot, which makes their motives and actions questionable and downright confusing. However, when character actions create problems and furthers the story like in “Thelma and Louise,” then the conflict feels natural and grows out of the story.
The key is giving as many characters a single, persistent problem that’s related to the hero’s main problem. Problems are the reason why we watch movies to see characters overcome obstacles. The more characters have problems, the more interesting your story will likely be.